City Enters Era of 'Year-Round Budgeting'

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There used to be a time when the city hammered out a tentative budget, politicians and others duked it out regarding the allocations for their pet causes and agencies, and, eventually, everyone got on with running the city.

Well, those days are over. Now the joys of budgeting never end -- and the worries of having your funding yanked are constant as well.

"We are definitely in a situation right now, because of the size of the problem, in the mode of year-round budgeting," affirmed Greg Wagner, Mayor Gavin Newsom's budget director. "When times were better, we waited for a large portion of the year, took a break, and introduced the budget on June 1. With this economic climate, we need to be making continuous work on on bringing the budget deficit down."

While Wagner talks of year-round budgeting, sadly, with a projected $522.2 million shortfall to make up by June, what he often means is year-round cuts. Around City Hall, in fact, some are calling the mayor's new proactive budgeting "monthly cuts."

With city departments required to submit their budgets on Feb. 22, Wagner said he's working to shave off dollars "literally every day."

When asked if the city would repeat the tactic used in the Department of Public Health of eliminating certain job categories, laying off workers, then re-hiring them to a different category that pays far less, Wagner gave an interesting answer. "We're looking at all of our options," he said. It's always important for us to be thinking hard about what our staffing is. We've got over half our city budget in salaries and a big part of making budget decisions is looking at ... what classes our employees are in."

Well, one thing that isn't is a denial.

Another strategy the city is pushing is for departments to cut programs sooner rather than later, so money can be saved more immediately. "The mayor is evaluating whether some cuts should be brought forward into this fiscal year so those savings can be achieved," said Monique Zmuda, the city's deputy controller. Hypothetically, if you cut a $3 million yearly program now instead of in June, you're saving $1.5 million you ostensibly won't have to cut in fiscal 2011. It's sort of like an installment plan -- but 180 degrees different. Maybe it's an uninstallment plan.

Finally, as noted before, city officials' perpetual budgeting can lead to perpetual worrying for those who depend on city dollars. Alicia Boccellari, the director of San Francisco's Trauma Recovery Center, is preparing to fight for her outfit's very existence in the face of looming budget cuts. This is taking a lot of time, she says, that could be used helping folks recover from trauma.

"I totally understand the point of view of the city, this is an unprecedented budget deficit," she says. "But in past years, we'd be spending two months, maybe three on budgeting issues. Now it's all 12 months."

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